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What Oscar hopeful ‘The Two Popes’ misses about Francis and Benedict’s relationship

Pope Francis visits Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery to offer his Christmas greetings in 2018. (Vatican Media)

ROME — Every so often, the Vatican press office sends an email to journalists announcing that Pope Francis met with his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. These emails, each just a sentence or two, tend to include several photos: Francis clasping Benedict's bony hand or sitting beside him at his apartment. The photos barely pass as insight into their meetings, but it's the closest we get.

Most recently, the two were together during a ceremony to greet newly appointed cardinals. The pair faced the group while seated in identical chairs, dressed in nearly identical outfits of papal white — a kind of duplicate image inconceivable in Catholicism until relatively recently.

The two popes.

Given the singularity and opacity of the Francis-Benedict relationship, it felt almost thrilling that an Oscar-contending Netflix movie promised to help us imagine it. But as I watched “The Two Popes,” I couldn’t help but feel that the movie doesn’t tell us much at all — no more than the photos released by the Vatican.

“The Two Popes” is a semi-comedic bromance set during a historic transition for the church. The film depicts a period in 2012 when Benedict was still pope and had no real relationship with Francis, who was then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires.

In the movie, a contrived narrative brings the men together. Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) flies to Italy to meet with Benedict (played by Anthony Hopkins) and beg permission to retire. (This, as far as we know, did not happen.) The two men spar and measure their differences, over days, until Benedict warms to Bergoglio’s more modern point of view. Benedict confides his own shocking plan to retire and then confesses his sins and failings to a man he has come to see as a worthy successor. Bergoglio teaches Benedict to dance the tango, the two watch a World Cup match together, and the credits roll.

But the things that make the Benedict-Francis relationship so intriguing, and so potentially tense, have unfolded in the years since.

A movie set closer to the present tense could have explored why the transition was so dangerous, how Francis’s papacy is made more difficult with Benedict in the shadows and how the deepening strife within the church might be pulling at the relationship of two very different men who seem to be trying — from the little we know — to nonetheless treat one another with some warmth and respect.

Benedict and Francis are surely more complex than they were several years ago — if not as people, than as decision-makers. The movie portrays Benedict as a change-averse, bookish loner who feels that the power of Catholicism comes from its immovable truths. That part is fair, by most accounts. But the depiction also misses out on all the ways Benedict has been a pioneer. Not just with his decision to renounce, but with the smaller, complicated and complicating decisions he made afterward. Choosing to keep his papal name. Choosing to continue to wear papal white. Choosing to stay inside the Vatican, just steps away from Francis. And then, gradually, becoming a symbol of resistance for Catholics opposed to Francis’s reformist papacy.

The prospect of two living popes had been viewed for centuries as a risk to the church, and it has been up to Benedict to craft the rules, often awkwardly, for how to keep those risks at bay. He has mostly withdrawn from public life as a way to yield full authority to his successor, saying in a rare interview, “There is one pope, he is Francis.” But he hasn’t totally played along with his own rules. Earlier this year, he released a letter on the topic of sexual abuse, offering a lengthy diagnosis of the church’s central crisis. His ideas were almost directly in contrast with those of Francis.

Francis, meantime, is portrayed in the movie as a cardinal with common man’s sense; he likes pizza and soccer, eschews luxury, totes his own luggage. He has some ghosts from past decisions, but the movie leaves little doubt that he’s on the right side of church history: He is clear-eyed about the evils of sexual abuse, about the need for the church to widen its reach with reforms.

But Francis’s election as pope has hardly been the final triumph of the modern papacy, as the movie might lead us to believe. Francis, it turns out, has his own spotty record on responding to abuse. The Vatican, when it comes to releasing data on abuse cases, has been less transparent than it was under Benedict.

Francis has dedicated himself to important issues — migration and economic inequality and climate change — but he has faced enormous backlash from retrenched Catholic traditionalists, who say they are standing up for the principles that Benedict believes in but cannot say.

Even for reporters working out of Rome, it’s almost impossible to know how Francis and Benedict really get along. The gossipy tendencies of the Vatican tend to disappear the closer somebody gets to the pope. In June, asked about Benedict while returning from Romania on the papal plane, Francis began by briefly describing his visits with the pope emeritus — taking Benedict’s hand, listening to him talk slowly, but with depth.

“He has a great lucidity, as always,” Francis said. “When I hear him speak, I become strong.”

But then Francis broke off into a tangent, talking about how the tradition of the church is “always in motion” and how tradition is not a “museum.”

“Tradition is the roots that guarantee the tree grows, flowers and gives fruit,” Francis said, before shifting topics again, and it was unclear whether the pope was offering his own views or an interpretation of Benedict’s. Either way, he sounded nothing like Benedict himself.

Popes, even more so than heads of state, are protected by the reverence and the gilded world around them. It helps to sometimes think of them as men, even if we have to imagine it — jet-lagged, or enjoying meals, or writing speeches they don’t like, or wondering whether they are good at their job. In that way, fiction helps to break into their world.

I like to imagine the two popes talking to each other — not just doing verbal battle over ideology about the church, but wondering whether they are helping each other, hurting each other. Maybe these conversations are already happening. We already know the two popes are living inside the same ancient walls and sitting down together from time to time.

Well, maybe the sequel will be better than the original.

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